Back to the Future

What has kept tiny Fayetteville alive and authentic when other Texas towns have died or surrendered to tourism? The answer lies in its past.

TIRED OF SPRING GETAWAYS ON the coast, where the sea air is thick with teenage pheromones? For something completely different, head inland to the gently rolling hills an hour and a half east of Austin, an area I once called home but fled the minute I graduated from high school. At the time, possibly pheromone-crazed myself, I considered my rural stomping grounds completely comatose. Twenty-five years of urban thrills later, however, comatose sounds pretty good.

But while some towns hereabouts have withered away to little more than a post office and a few vacant buildings held up by trumpet vines, others have morphed into homogeneous, Wal-Marted mini-cities or festival-obsessed tourist destinations. Miraculously, tiny Fayetteville, population 261, still manages the difficult high-wire act of remaining both charming and genuine without tumbling into either the pit of oblivion or one filled with tour buses and Ye Olde Fudge Shoppes. (What is it about tourists and fudge?) Fayetteville’s 74-year-old water tower (which looks like the Tin Man’s head) and its white clapboard precinct courthouse ringed with pecan trees are so picturesque, I actually squeal every time I see them. It’s a sweet town, sure, but not cloyingly so, thanks in part to the authenticity of these quaint landmarks as well as the presence of several businesses on the square that offer real things real people need—things like loans, cold longnecks, haircuts, work gloves, and chicken-fried steaks.

Even so, on recent trips through Fayetteville (it’s on Texas Highway 159, my favorite route to my parents’ house, in Kenney), I had the sinking feeling that my secret small town—which I’ve never touted for fear of ruining it—was a little out of balance and in danger of slipping off the tightrope. If it did, which pit would it land in? Hmmm—let’s try to decipher the signs.

There are Portents of Near Oblivion: Chovanec’s, a rambling grocery and dry-goods store that had been in business since 1941, shut its doors early this year. Across the street at Kabala’s Hardware Store, the service is unfailingly gracious but—although you can still find the unequaled Duke’s Easy Pecan and Nut Cracker—the inventory is quite sparse. Most ominous, however, is the void where Baca’s Pavilion used to be, where I learned to polka and, in the mid-seventies, gyrated to Procol Harum tunes cranked out by cover bands like the Barons. A couple of years ago, the thirties-vintage Czech dance hall was sucked into the vortex of consumerism that nearby Warrenton has become. The old building was sliced in half, hauled a few miles north, plunked in an empty field, glued back together, and dubbed an antiques mall.

And there are Portents of Fudge Shoppes: Stores selling cheesy doodads imported from faraway countries, Christmas ornaments year-round, and contemporary “collectibles” (think Beanie Babies and their ilk) have proliferated over the past five years. Most have been opened by an influx of retirees from Houston, who also operate many of the burgeoning B&Bs in the area (22 at last count). Each April and October, the town rides the coattails of Warrenton’s Antiques Week, transforming the meeting hall of the Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas ( SPJST) into an antiques emporium and succumbing to Midnight Madness, when most of its shops stay open until the witching hour on Fridays and Saturdays. And if remote Round Top can become a classical-music destination, why not Fayetteville, with its fledgling annual harp competition?

It occurs to me that this tug and pull between decline and cutesiness might, at least in part, be what has kept the place on its feet. But most towns contend with these same forces and many fall. So what is the key to

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